Photograph by Nicholas Asfouri for AFP via Getty Images.

Why 2018 Was Fashion’s Most Controversial Year

From Dolce & Gabbana to Victoria’s Secret, more eyes are on industry wrongdoings than ever.

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Dec 21 2018, 4:50pm

Photograph by Nicholas Asfouri for AFP via Getty Images.

Was 2018 the most controversy-inducing year in fashion? “It certainly feels like 2018 experienced more than most,” says Ronn Torossian, the president and CEO of 5W Public Relations, an agency that specializes in crisis control. From an n-word debacle at Paris Couture Week in January to the brouhaha over a December GQ story claiming “bootcut jeans are making a comeback,” the amount of fashion firestorms in need of a fire hose felt larger than ever.

Take, for instance, the final two months of the year. On November 8, L Brand’s CMO told Vogue that plus-size and transgender women had no place on the Victoria’s Secret runway. Less than two weeks later, on November 21, Dolce & Gabbana canceled what would have been the brand’s largest show to date following backlash over a racist ad. A few weeks later, on December 14, Prada pulled a collection of monkey trinkets after being accused of depicting blackface imagery. Days later, on December 18, Forever 21 came under fire for posting a photo of a white model wearing a Black Panther-themed “Wakanda Forever” sweater.

But that’s just the tail-end of a year of fashion dust-ups, blow-ups, and all out infernos. Was it more than ever before? After all, 2017 had given us Adidas’s cringe-inducing “You survived the Boston Marathon” email, Donna Karan defending her pal Harvey Weinstein (she later apologized), and Nivea praising “white purity” in an ad. Or were this year’s controversies somehow farther reaching, farther resonating? And if the former is true, that we just lived to tell the tale of fashion’s most problematic year, what does that tell us about the current state of fashion?

First, a quick look back at the year.

January came out the gate, guns-a-blazin’ on the controversy front, with H&M releasing a photograph of a young black model wearing a hoodie inscribed with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle.” After the image was first released on January 7, The Weeknd cut ties with the brand as a result. Lebron James, Diddy, and T.I. were just a few of the celebrities who spoke out condemning the brand. H&M apologized not once, but twice. Not a week later, on January 13, a bombshell New York Times investigation revealed fifteen men accusing photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino of seuxal harassment. Ten days later, on January 23, Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko found herself within a swirling controversy after sharing a note she wrote to her friend (Future Tech Lab CEO and founder Miroslava Duma) with the word “n*gga” clearly visible. Then: “I sincerely apologize” from one; “I am deeply sorry,” from the other.

The controversies didn’t stop. February: Gucci’s Sikh turbans cause an uproar on their Autumn/Winter 2018 runway. March: LA Fashion Week faces backlash over a show producer allegedly saying that he “did not want Filipinas on his runway.” May: Gigi Hadid is called out for appearing in blackface on Vogue Italia cover. June: Melania’s now-infamous “I really don’t care. Do you?” jacket emerges; Stefano Gabbana calls Selena Gomez “so ugly” on Instagram. August: The French open bans Serena Williams’ Nike catsuit. September: Billion-dollar fashion company Revolve faces backlash over a “being fat is not beautiful it’s an excuse sweatshirt; select Nike “fans,” incited by the casting of Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign, begin destroying their apparel in protest; Moschino’s Jeremy Scott is accused of plagiarizing design. October: Model Bar Refaeli appears in a clothing ad accused of promoting Islamophobia. November: Kim Kardashian West apologizes over using slur to describe Halloween costume on Instagram video. December: Meghan Markle holding her baby bump was somehow controversial.

And perhaps there is more controversy today than ever before. Or perhaps the language of fashion has changed. After all, when Jean-Paul Gaultier featured models wearing Sikh turbans for his Spring/Summer 2013 menswear, it wasn’t lambasted, but rather celebrated. India Today called it “a rich tribute.” These days, however, India Today is writing headlines like this: “Gucci uses Sikh turban as 'accessory', gets trolled.” The same accessory, the intention to celebrate no different, but a steep downgrade from tribute to trolled.

“Perhaps the largest factor is our ability to now witness an ideological shift in real time,” Torossian remarks. “The general consumer base is undergoing a moral and ethical evolution, which the fashion industry is now forced to listen to, if it wants to remain relevant.”

It’s clear the outsized role social media has played in identifying a controversy and getting it in front of the eyeballs of those who can not only signal boost, but whose like-minded followers too will share and perhaps instigate articles like the Gucci story. And sometimes it works in their favor, like the canceling of the D&G show, which likely would not have happened had the story not snowballed online as it did. But sometimes it can be misdirected outrage. Such was the case in October when Vogue apologized after a photo with Kendall Jenner with a Gibson girl hairstyle was misconstrued by many online as cultural appropriation.

Are the times a-changin’? “I sincerely hope so, but then again look at Dolce & Gabanna,” Jennifer Meyer, founder and president of Jennifer Bett Communications, points out. “Stefano has been publicly spreading hateful, vile messages for years and the fashion industry still shows up for their shows, still writes glowing articles, still pulls clothing for their shoots. So it's clear that ad dollars sometimes outweigh the outrage.”

Still, it’s undeniable that a cultural shift toward increased sensitivity has had an impact on identifying and highlighting problematic behavior in the fashion industry, whicht is not newly messy, but is finds its inner-workings in the limelight more frequently than ever. The headlines this year weren’t fashion-with-a-capital-F headlines; they were about assault, racism, sexism, transphobia and other indecencies. In 2018, fashion was no longer sanctioned to its own section of the paper. It became the news.